Free the Land: An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba

Chokwe Lumumba discusses popular power and the past and future of revolutionary struggle in the American South.

Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a Mississippi the popular imagination would paint as anything but.

It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a State Capitol building that flies a defiant Confederate battle flag and a City Hall built by slave labor.

But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Mainstream politicians like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After the mayor’s death in February at the age of sixty-six, Cole called him “a man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”

Even city business leaders like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open, and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.

It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the twentieth century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counterrevolution in response.

Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Finley Taliaferro. He saw racism growing up, from all-white restaurants in Dearborn that wouldn’t serve his family to housing and job discrimination in the inner city. It instilled a level of social consciousness in the young man, consciousness that would only grow as he absorbed the era’s images: Emmett Till’s battered teenaged corpse, street battles and sit-ins, and, most formatively, the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Like so many other black youth, he was radicalized. Adopting his new name from a Central African ethnic group and slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe put ambitions of becoming a lawyer on hold to join the fight. He was attracted to the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson. They wanted a new nation in the African-American majority counties of the Southeast.

In 1971, Lumumba joined them in Jackson — where, as in other cities in Mississippi, blacks had little political representation and nostalgia for Jim Crow was still strong. In August of that same year, local police and FBI agents raided the RNA compound. In the ensuing gun battle, during which Lumumba was not present, a police officer was killed and another, along with a federal agent, was wounded. Eleven New Afrika members were arrested. In the aftermath, Lumumba moved back to Detroit, finishing law school at Wayne State University in 1975 before finding his way back to Jackson a decade later.

But Lumumba’s was not the tale of a radical coming to terms with society as it exists, like so many from the New Left. His legal career was radical and often controversial. He took on a host of high-profile cases, including those of Fulani Sunni Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur, and former Black Panther Party members Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.

He never renounced the goal of black self-determination or apologized for his activism during his Republic of New Afrika years. Lumumba told me in the interview below that only his tactics had changed in light of the new political avenues now open to black militants in the South.

“At that time, in the seventies, we were locked out of government completely,” he said. “We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression.”

Today, the situation is different. From Tunica, in northwest Mississippi, to Wilkerson County, in the southwest, there are eighteen predominantly black counties in the state that have in the last few decades finally been able break the domination of white officeholders. Lumumba saw this as only the start of the deep transformation that the region needed.

“One of the routes to that self-determination,” he told me, “is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more.” But he was quick to portray his movement as an inclusive socialist one. “This is not a ‘hate whitey’ movement. This is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement.”

Lumumba and the activists who rallied around his campaigns hoped to establish two planks of political power: one based on people’s assemblies and another on a solidarity economy, built on a network of worker-owned cooperatives. The assemblies were, for the moment, purely advisory. They started in Ward 2, while he was a councilman, but spread after his election as mayor.

Mississippi has had truly universal suffrage for only a little more than a generation. Yet Lumumba wanted to foster a democratic culture that was not just representative, but participatory. Inviting people to voice their grievances in town halls and have a say in the distribution of public resources was part of that commitment. But he had loftier ambitions: over time, he wanted the new organs of people’s power, absolute and direct democracy, to replace existing structures.

He didn’t even think that his government could be equated with “people’s power.” “That’s still a struggle to be achieved; that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now,” Lumumba cautioned.

The solidarity economy schemes were just as ambitious. While keenly aware of and open about the limits of political and economic experimentation on the local level — and seeing his new administration’s efforts as transitional — Lumumba wanted to use city contracts and economic leverage to foster worker ownership. Invoking the Ujamaa concept of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, he hoped to transform a full 10 percent of Jackson’s economy into cooperatives by the end of his first term alone. The administration had been planning for months to debate and explore their options with activists and outside experts at a “Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference” in May.

It was less about spearheading a revolution from above than creating a climate of radical thought and experimentation that could take on dynamics of its own. In the meantime, even Jackson’s moderates were won over by clean and efficient government and Lumumba’s easy charm and humor.

That support would have been needed. Activists within the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement worried that if they went too far too fast, the state legislature could limit self-governance in Jackson, maybe even place the city under trusteeship. What’s more, both sides knew that the honeymoon period with downtown developers couldn’t last either. Real economic and political transformation requires taking power away from those not keen on relinquishing it.

This interview was conducted with Lumumba in February 2014, several days before he died from heart failure. For the Left, a few lessons in particular should be drawn from it. Lumumba governed to inspire movements from below, not to administer austerity. There need not be a contradiction between holding office, even executive office, and building a radical opposition.

Lumumba navigated these waters successfully despite the fact that he ran as a Democrat. Utilizing open primaries — a peculiarity of the American system — may not be the best route for socialists in northern cities where liberal machines still dominate and neutralize insurgencies from within, but it can make tactical sense elsewhere.

Nowhere is that truer than in states such as Mississippi. One of the most progressive voting blocs in the country is in the so-called Black Belt: the African-American majority counties that stretch across the Southeast. Without sufficient progressive numbers statewide to swing states in the electoral college or to elect anyone but local officials, these constituencies are ignored by presidential-cycle-minded national liberals. They shouldn’t be by socialists and all those committed to building militant currents among the most oppressed.

Success doesn’t come easy. But Lumumba and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement showed how years of disciplined work “serving the people,” including politicized relief work after Hurricane Katrina, could pay off in the electoral arena and how those victories could expand rather than restrict popular power.

We’ll need many more efforts like it in the years to come to end class and racial exploitation. And that’s the only way fit to commemorate a comrade as astounding as Chokwe Lumumba.